Block Island Report, photo edition

Twelve stripers to hand, and not a single picture of any of them? It’s true. We’ve all seen enough cookie-cutter bass photos; the one striper that was photo-worthy escaped into the waves; and several of them were landed in very fish-photo-unfriendly conditions. So, you have to settle for this (slightly) humorous photo essay of my week on the Block. Oh! You may also learn something…

It helps to have a 4WD vehicle on Block. Some of the better fishing can be found along the dirtier of its many dirt roads.
Here’s a little lesson in scouting a new mark. This is a section of beach on the south side. I planned to fish it at high tide, so I first visited it at dead low. This gives me an opportunity to see what and where the structure is that will be covered by water. (Of course, I also visited it in daylight at the corresponding tide I’d be fishing). Also, note the tremendous drop-off between where I’m standing and the rock pile-of-a-beach lip at the left. Where I’m standing will be filled at flood, creating a trough through which stripers can cruise for bait. It also tells me two more critical pieces of information. First, I won’t have to cast far to reach viable water. And two, under no circumstances do I want to get too close to the edge, or wade into this trough. Sadly, the surf was too big for the fly rod when I actually fished it, but I believe this mark will produce bass for me in the future.
Fine, but I just caught a bass after four hours of banging all over this island, and now I’m going home to have a late night beer.
Elsa’s remnants produced some impressive surf. To give you some perspective, those waves are hundreds of feet away and well overhead high. In my experience, an approaching tropical storm/hurricane on Block can turn the bass on big time the night before (nope, didn’t happen this time) and then completly mess up the fishing the next night (yep, that did happen). To be fair, the fishing stunk all week, so it made little difference.
Electrical storms were an almost constant threat that week. Here I am keeping my eye on a system that was moving over the mainland. I’m also celebrating my only bass of the night, which is always a cigar-worthy occasion.
“Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.” I remember these retro-cans from the 70s. To Block Island: you’re a truly special place to fish.

Block Island Report: You shoulda been here last week

After last year’s feast or famine full-moon struggle, I was really looking forward to fishing the dark of the moon on Block. To add to my excitement, the shore fishing in the weeks leading up to my trip was en fuego. I’ll quote Chris Willi of Block Island Fishworks: “I haven’t seen this much bait and bass and blues and shad in the pond in 20 years.” Captain Hank chimes in: “There’s life in the drink everywhere!”

By the time I arrived, it was all gone.

The front that came through on July 4th weekend sent everything packing. To add to the weather mischief, tropical storm remnants swept through mid-week and further cocked things up. The result was some of the poorest fishing on Block I’ve experienced in the last decade. A dozen fish over the course of seven nights was the best I could do, and I felt like I did really well given the conditions. To give you some perspective, I got a dozen fish or more on four different nights last year. I did not see another angler catch a striper from the shore, fly or spinning, for the entire trip. I did not speak to any anglers who managed more than two stripers the entire trip. Perhaps worst of all, this is now the third consecutive year that I have not caught a bass over 28″ on Block. Not good.

The Cut was a barren bait and striped bass wasteland. Charlestown Beach likewise. The flats fishing, my favorite form of Block Island fly fishing entertainment, stunk. Even the East side beaches were spotty, with a fish here, a fish there — and that’s if you could find a weed-free zone. And yes, I hit up the South side and SE sides. Blanks.

But enough kvetching. There were some positives. I did not blank on any night. I fished three marks that I’d never fished before, and found fish in two of them. (In fact, one of them became my defacto skunk saver.) I loved all three spots, and I will be adding them to my rotation. I spent more time fishing open beaches in wind and wave, and the two-handed cannon once again proved its mettle. On the opposite side of the rod spectrum, I finally baptized my five weight with a Block Island bass. And let’s face it: anyone who gets to spend a week banging around Block Island with a fly rod and a humidor full of premium cigars has a pretty good lot in life.

There’s always next year.

Now, if the rivers would just come down so I can harass some smallies.

The striper fishing was dead. Get it?

Ray Bondorew’s Marabou Sand Eel

In his classic Stripers and Streamers, Ray Bondorew serves up an unimpeachable truth: fly tyers tend to overcomplicate things. Nowhere is this more true than in striper fly tying, where realism is king. Sand eels, also known as sand lances, are pretty basic — slender body, pointed snout, lighter on the bottom, darker on the top. Yet, as Ray observed, “Many sand eel patterns have been devised over the years, and many seem to involve much work to copy such a slender, simple bait. Complex bodies with Mylar tubing, Corsair, and epoxy have evolved. Several patterns require tandem hooks.” He doesn’t mention my pet peeve: eyes, which do a fantastic job of catching anglers. But I digress. I’ll let the man continue.

“I have always thought,” Ray said, “that there must be a way to formulate a simple, quickly tied, and effective pattern, especially for sand eels less than four inches long.” So Ray went forth and prospered at the vise. Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel is another favorite of mine, along with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, for imitating small sand eels, three inches long or less. Like Ken, Ray has some very specific thoughts on how best to tie this pattern.

“The trick here,” he says, “is to use as little marabou as possible.” Any thicker than a paper match width is, as Ray calls it, “overdressed.” Wet your fingertips and run them along the length of the completed fly to see if you’ve achieved your goal. Those who channel their inner sparse, impressionistic fly artist shall be rewarded with fat, cantankerous stripers.

Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel. Thread: Light green monocord. Hook: Eagle Claw 254 size 1 or 1/0. Body: Pearl braid. Tail: Several wisps of long white marabou over which are tied two strands pearl Flashabou and a few wisps of olive marabou. Wing: A few wisps of olive marabou topped by 2-3 strands of peacock herl.

Tying notes: As with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, I use the Eagle Claw 253 or other light, wide gap hook. No monocord for me, so I use Olive UNI 6/0. Leave a 3″ tag of thread near the hook bend; use this tag to bind down the wing. (Ray says if you choose to go the non-bound wing route, the pattern makes a fine silverside fly.) The pearl flash should extend beyond the wing by 1/2″. Use high quality marabou quills, and keep it sparse. What’s pictured here is as heavily dressed as I go.

If you tie Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel and it looks too thin, you probably tied it right.

Re-stocking the summer striper box

I received so many comments and emails about my recent post on my striper fly box that I thought it deserved a follow-up. Having taken to the vise, my next step was to fill in the blanks. The box is sand eel-heavy, and that’s by design since I like to fish summer marks where sand eels are the primary forage.

I populated the third row with small stuff like clam worms, shrimp, and mostly small baitfish and sand eels. The second row gets all sand eels, from left to right: Eelies and Eelie variants, Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel, and the Golden Knight bucktail. Those flies are all 2 1/2″-3″ long. The big-eye hooks were gifted to me by some friends in Europe; I’m not sure of the name or size, but they look strong, have a wide gap, and are very light.
To the main event! Big Eelies get top billing since they are my workhorse (and favorite) pattern. The original is far left, followed be all kinds of variants: Olive Fireworm, Crazy Menhaden, a couple as yet un-named, L&L, Bruiser. (You can find recipes for most of these on my site.) Spares will go on the right side, along with squid and some experiments I’ll be test driving this summer and fall.

Reorganizing and replenishing the striper box

I’ve been meaning to do this for a good, long time. I started by taking out every fly from the left side of my box — this is the working side that gets the most use. I returned a few of the smaller bugs to the lower slots, but the others, mostly sand eels, got straightened out (flies tend to get gershtunkled after years of non-use) under a running hot water bath, followed by a hang drying on corks, and then finally laid out on a sheet of paper. From there I took inventory to see which patterns needed replacing and replenishing. So, right now I’m in the middle of a massive sand eel tying blitz. And did I mention squid? Golly, I ‘ve got to tie a few more of those. And then my experiments! I’m going to be playing around with some Gurgling Sand Eel variants this summer. To the vise! To the water!

Smallmouth Report 6/24/21: Not warmed up yet

I fished a mark on the Hous last night from 7pm to 9pm, and it was very, very slow. By the time I reached the water, there’d already been a strong caddis hatch (mottled light tan, size 16) and there were sulphur spinners in the water. A few smaller trout and smallmouth were eating bugs, but I they were in some deeper water, way out of casting range. The flow was medium and lightly stained; the water really hasn’t warmed up yet and I find the smallie fishing goes better when it does. Bugs I fished were the TeQueeley, Gurgler, Mini D&D, Wiggly, and Countermeasure. Well, I did try some nymphing, but I don’t think I got deep enough. I had a hysterical swipe at the indicator from a little fish as I was preparing to cast, but mostly I practiced presenting and conducting experiments. (I have a lot of experimenting to do this summer, and I’ll let you know at some point how it goes.)

It wasn’t until 8:30 that I connected with my first smallie, a respectable 10″ fish. Right at dark I started pounding the shallows with the Countermeasure, and I was rewarded with my first good smallmouth of the year. But that was it, leaving me alone on the river with the bugs and my cigar.

Not too shabby, just about two pounds, and a worthy opponent on a five-weight. I have only the utmost respect for the power and doggedness of these creatures. They just don’t want to come to net.

Housatonic Mini-Report 6/17/21, or: I went smallmouth fishing and ended up catching a bazillion trout

Forgive the brevity, but here’s what happened. I fished from 5:30pm-9:15pm. I started way far below the TMA in search of smallmouth. I managed one on a Gurgler, and a rather large fallfish on a wet fly. The river was lightly stained and running at a normal 575cfs. Water temp was upper 60s. After 90 minutes, I was unimpressed with this mark, so I headed up to the TMA. A massive caddis hatch had occurred, and size 16 tan caddis blanketed the rocks along the shore and swirled everywhere. They were soon joined by a strong showing of sulphurs and Cahills. I managed a stout smallie on a streamer, but the sight of trout eagerly snapping at emergers had me switching to wet fly in a hurry. First cast, bang, and it was all fantastic action until dark. I made the switch to dries around 8pm, and for a half hour it was a trout on every cast. They were greedily feeding just like they do during a Hendrickson emergence, mouths open, launching at the fly. It slowed a bit until I called it at dark, 9:15, but I was still catching on Light Cahill Catskills dries and Usuals. A few rainbows in the mix but mostly browns. With elevated water temps, I used 4x tippet so I could get the fish in fast. All of them looked very healthy. Hopefully they will find the thermal refuges before the water gets too warm.

One of many customers, all of which have been eating well. Spectacular dry fly action!

The shortest distance between two anglers is a hello

This has been happening more and more: I’m fishing near people, and later in the parking lot they come up to me and introduce themselves. That’s great, because I love meeting currentseams readers. But invariably they tell me that they didn’t say hello on the water because they didn’t want to “bother” me (the air quotes are mine). Folks, you’re not bothering me. Please introduce yourself.

Sure, if I’m guiding a client, I probably can’t have an extended conversation with you; that would be unfair to my client, who deserves my full attention. But it’s no secret that places like the Farmington River are more crowded than ever. Space in prime fishing marks is often scarce. So instead of me looking at you as a potential hostile invader — and vice versa — wouldn’t it be better if we could share the water without angst? Come say hello. If you’re looking for a place to fish, ask if there’s room. (Maybe if I get there after you, I’ll ask you!) If there is, we’ll make it work. If there isn’t, there’s always next time. And at the very least we now have faces and names connected. That’s a win for everyone.

Speaking of sharing water, I want to thank everyone I’ve encountered this season who has been so darned friendly and accommodating about doing so. I typically expect the worst from people, so it is a delight to be proven wrong about human nature. Kindness from strangers is a blessing. May the river gods bestow the tightest of lines upon all of you!

These gentlemen came all the way from Spain (really) to say hello.

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Farmington River Report 6/13/21: Wet fly doldrums, then all dry fly hell breaks loose

I fished a different section of the lower river yesterday, from late afternoon into dark. The water was clear, cool, running at 460cfs — just about right. As is my my custom, I arrived rigged for wet fly, anticipating a typical very late spring pre-hatch wet fly bonanza. ‘Twas not to be. The early evening hatch never materialized. Well, it did if you count three sulphurs and four spotty rises in 90 minutes. But I was sorely disappointed with the lack of activity. I managed a measly four bumps, and only one of them resulted in a hookup. (Then again, the prime wet fly water in the run was occupied.)

At 7:30 I re-rigged for dry fly. It took a while for things to happen, but when they did, it was fast and furious. Observed: sulphurs size 16, tiny BWOs, Isonychia size 12, dark gray stoneflies size 12, and mats of midges. I focused on the yellow stuff, and threw Magic Flies, Usuals, and Catskills Light Cahills, all of which were eaten. Noteworthy: the world’s longest refusal (drifting over a gravel bank into a drop-off, and this guy rose and shadowed the fly for a good fifteen feet, nearly taking it several times before saying no); an epic 50-foot drift where I had three(!) different trout commit to the fly with a splashy take, none of which resulted in a hookset; and a comical take where a brown blasted the fly like it was going to hurt him, which, as it turns out, it did — in his haste to dine he fouled himself in his pectoral fin.

I was fishing in some fairly technical water, which I often prefer with dry fly because of its challenges. (We’re talking longer leaders, precision mends, and tricky drift management.) I didn’t connect as many times as I would have liked to, but I did hook fish from as far away as 45 feet and a close as a rod’s length. The frenzied feeding really didn’t begin until 8:30, and when I dragged myself away at 9:15, I’d just hooked a trout on a drift I couldn’t see.

A strange but pleasant evening. The first outing with the cane pole is always a treat.

This one’s worth repeating. There comes a stage late in the hatch where trout are feeding on both duns and spinners. Then, it transitions solely to spinners. You don’t need to stress about which stage they’re eating if you’re using a Catskills style dry like this Light Cahill. Trout will eagerly take it even when they’re on spinners. Every year, some of my biggest dry fly trout come on this pattern when the only feeding tell is the gentle, subtle spinner rise ring. Pro tip: you can upsize the fly so you can see it in the gloaming.

Farmington River Mini-Report 6/7/21: I think I’m done with that spot (for now)

I can be a massive creature of habit. But sometimes I like to return to a mark several times within a short period of time simply because I’m curious how things change, evolve, or otherwise go chaotic. I had a little over two hours Monday night, so I revisited an old favorite place on the Lower River. This is where I slayed them two weeks ago, and had a slow night last week. Monday was a repeat of last week: little-to-no hatch activity and even fewer fish rising. I got into a half dozen trout, including some lovely wild browns, but I had to work my butt off for them. I was most disappointed in the lack of a hatch. You’d think with a warm, sunny day, cool water, and not too much of it, you’d get a gangbusters sulphur emergence. Nope. So off to parts elsewhere, when I can, that is. Busy rest of the week. I would think that the vast majority of the Farmington above Collinsville is in its very late spring wet fly wheelhouse. Catch ’em up!

No, I have not forgotten about you. Your time is coming.